2020 was a year like no other. It was completely unexpected and included things I never thought I would do in my life.
An incredible year
Given all the limits and constraints of the year, I found it incredible in many ways. Some things of course I'm hoping we move on from. But I've learned so much, and continue to learn from all that has been thrown at us.
My meditation practice allows me a welcome space to sit with the tragedy of the year, and the heightened visibility of inequality and privilege demonstrated through the virus's progression through different communities and countries and the BLM movements. A clear re-evaluation of life and what to do with the privilege that I have is an ongoing project.
Perhaps we've all come to value our health and way of life more than ever before. We can more easily recognise the gifts of our health and our privilege and ensure we use these gifts well in our daily lives.
Start small, for achievable and sustainable progress. From how we make ourselves more resilient in our own health, through our lifestyle and dietary choices, to how we interact with others and treat our neighbours and engage with our local communities.
My top tips for every day:
There are lessons for each of us from 2020. If any positives are to come of last year, let's find them and take them to heart.
Hot yoga is really popular as an alternative to regular temperature yoga classes. Hot yoga is a studio-based yoga practice in a super-heated room (42 degrees celcius - imagine Egypt in the summer then pour in extra humidity) where the aim is to work through a physical yoga practice and sweat a ton, then lie down and bask in the heat as you recover from the effort. It's intense and many people love it.
Why super heat a yoga class?
The claims about benefits of hot yoga practice are many:
- Detoxes the body
- Sweating is good for you
- Improved flexibility
... and so on.
The science may not back this up, but those who love it feel the results and swear by it. Those who don't love it, probably never go back.
I fall into the latter camp and find the claims to be subjective but if it benefits you and you enjoy it, then keep doing it.
As with all physical yoga practices, be cautious not to over stretch and be particularly careful with your joints, that they stay within a safe and comfortable range of motion. I have had many injured hot yoga practitioners come with knee, elbow and shoulder injuries from hot yoga classes so go carefully. Sometimes when the heat is on and the practice is intense, it is hard to listen to the inner voice advising you to ease off. Hot yoga can get competitive and that makes it harder to draw back from a pose when necessary. So applying your own sensible body-awareness skills to your practice is paramount when the heat intensity is turned up.
Is it more beneficial than not-hot yoga?
I'm biased, as I've been practicing yoga for 20 years and find an ambient room or even a cool space a wonderful way to practice. I can engage fully in my yoga practice when I'm able to turn the attention inwards rather than feeling overly hot or sweaty. I tend to heat up during my practice anyway, even if just taking a breathing (pranayama) practice.
I recently came across an interesting thesis which undertook a study comparing hot yoga practitioners alongside regular temperature Hatha yoga practitioners. The aim was to measure the effects of yoga practice on physiological and psychological fitness in young men and women over an 8-week period. Health metrics that were monitored include BMI, blood pressure, flexibility, peak oxygen consumption, back depression, anxiety and depression metrics.
Hot yoga participants worked at a significantly higher cardiovascular intensity and spent more time at a higher heart rate throughout the classes. But even with this, over the 8-week period, both hot yoga and Hatha yoga groups saw the same improvements in body composition and flexibility and also in anxiety and depression scores. So the outcome observations suggest that there are real, significant health benefits to engaging in both forms of yoga practice but there was no final measure on any additional psychological or physiological benefits gained by hot yoga training.
So by all means, do hot yoga practice if you love it and feel no ill effects from it, but from what we can tell, the health benefits are not greater doing it in a hot and sweaty room.
Another article to read more on this can be found here >
Home yoga practice?
I'm a big advocate of home yoga practice. Little and often can often bring about the most benefit - it is free to everyone and has an intimacy to it that you rarely get in the classroom. Ask any of my students who get a free home yoga practice handout at the end of each term to go and try at home. So learning your yoga practice skills in a group class or with personal yoga tuition and then starting to apply those skills in your home practice is a wonderful way to practice yoga. I've written about home yoga practice before here.
One of the limiting factors to hot yoga practice is that you have to go to the studio regularly to do this, and the costs add up. (Don't get me started on Mr Bikram, the hot yoga business mogul and his exuberant love of money and Rolls Royces - as a business model he turned hot yoga into a money spinner). Of course the communities that develop around group classes are wonderful and valuable, but the tie in to the studio and the costs involved can become problematic.
What about subtlety in yoga practice?
Beyond the intense physicality of the hot yoga class, also remember there is an inner essence to yoga practice. The internal connection through body, breath and mental focusing that go beyond the measurable health metrics outlined in the comparative study. I'm not sure the subtlety of my pranayama or meditation practice would be possible in an intensely heated environment yet the crown of my yoga practice can often be found here (thus my bias to comfortable temperature practice). My inner meditative focus might be externally drawn to feeling overly hot or to the physical sensations of sweating. But I get that some folks need the intensity of a very physical practice to keep them focused out of their busy minds.
I guess my final thought is that usually any yoga practice is better than no practice - so ultimately do whatever is likely to motivate you and do what you you will enjoy.
Thanks to Kalin Shephert Gawinski for sharing the abstract to their study from 2012.
Do you know anyone who isn't busy? Really busy? Chances are you have a long list of things to do (once you've done all the things you need to do). And once you've done that, you'll find something else to keep you busy.
Radio 4 recently had a short article on how we are 'addicted' to being busy and I have to say it rang very true. As a society, it is almost a badge of achievement to say your really busy. We value you, the idea of doing, achieving, getting more things done. Really it is easier to be busy than to not be busy. But are 'busy' things distracting us from bigger objectives?
We're so used to our time being filled that I'm not sure we'd be entirely comfortable with having nothing to do. When we might actually get a chance to turn our attention beyond the daily distractions. Unfortunately stress, health dilemmas, being 'burnt out' are all modern day results. And what have we really achieved?
The idea that we are too busy to take care of ourselves, to maintain a balance in our lives between doing, achieving, and being and experiencing is a conversation we should probably all have with ourselves along our journey - regularly. Yoga practice, and other meditative practices try to encourage moving away from 'doing' and entering a state of 'being' as a regular habit. To become familiar with other aspects of our lives and see what arises as we do this. At least weekly, preferably daily, try simply 'being' for 5 or 10 minutes. Try sitting, gazing, breathing, meditating, a moving meditation such as yoga, whatever you like. Try it and see what happens...
Yoga offers us a chance to take practices that will help make our body and mind stronger, more stable and less rigid and allow them to come back to a more harmonious and well-balanced state of being.
If you're a beginner to yoga, you may have an advantage to those experienced in yoga practice in some ways. You come to class being open and curious to what is about to happen. The uncertainty of not knowing what you are going to be doing in your class, the unfamiliar postures and ways of breathing all demand an attention and a focus to pull it off. There is an openness and natural effort, and less expectation. These are qualities that are essential ingredients in cultivating a healthy body and mind and enabling all that yoga has to offer to unfold for us.
Without the right attitude of attention and alertness in our yoga practice, our mind and body will stay in its usual patterns. Most of us are creatures of habit -- we're slouching, breathing poorly, thinking about the same old stuff (e.g. what is for dinner or mentally shopping for whatever has captured our attention...) -- all habits that we aim to improve upon through yoga practice.
Once we become experienced at yoga breathing, posture, technique and focus we can lose that fresh edge and that natural effort. We can become comfortable, perhaps complacent, or develop additional unhelpful habits rather than less.
The freshness of the beginner practitioner is a gift and something experienced practitioners may need to remind themselves of when they take yoga practice. Those with experience can become mechanical and repetitive as they practice during class, missing the potential of each posture and each breath. Being fully present in your practice, is part of the practice. The full physical and mental harmony available by taking simple practices, can be missing for the experienced practitioner.
As beginners to yoga we often feel like we don't know what we are doing. We should see this as a gift. Familiarity in yoga postures, breathing and the mechanics of meditation techniques can be a double edged sword. Trying to maintain a 'beginners perspective' will help to benefit more fully from each practice.
Is the picture above simply another beautiful sunset, simliar to ones you have seen before? The initial impression may suggest this because of the familiarity of such images - but remind yourself to see it with fresh eyes, as if for the first time. A wonderous, unexplored moment in time with untold beauty on this amazing planet, and an unexplored day to follow. Beginners eyes can discover so much more.
Beginners and those with experience, a reminder to bring along your beginners mind to your yoga practice.
Have a clear out
Have a physical clear out. Sort out a room, a cupboard, perhaps even just a drawer. Empty it out and only put back the things that you use and need. Creating physical space is a wonderful way of feeling more spacious internally too.
Let go of something old
We need to let go of something old first. Perhaps move on from a commitment, a habit, a club, a stagnant relationship, anything that feels like it isn't positive any longer and not worth reinvesting in. Re-assess your commitments and see what would be worth replacing with something more positive and vibrant.
Take a moment to count your blessings. Feeling grateful each day is a wonderful practice to cultivate. It enables you to appreciate what you have, to re-envigorate your enthusiasm for them, and importantly, to break the cycle of always wanting something that you don't have. Gratitude can help you feel more spacious and avoiding taking on more things that you may not actually need. Hey, I have opposable thumbs, thank you!
Move and breath
Yoga and other embodied meditative practices are wonderful at creating a feeling of physical and mental space. They support you to physically become stronger and de-compress yourself, enabling your body to be more more stable and move more easily and naturally - ie. feeling more spacious. Easing out tensions, stresses and blocks enables us to feel more comfortable with ourselves. And using the mental discplines of breath focus, moving and still meditations to allow us to let go of unhelpful thought patterns and feel mentally spacious and open are all essential to our wellbeing.
Notice the present moment
Practice being in the present moment more often. We often spend our days carrying around old memories and worries, or bring along anticipations and fears of the future, and perhaps feel burdened and weighed down. Try letting go of these and practice appreciating and fully experiencing each day and moment as it unfolds.
I always love reflecting on the Dalai Lamas 18 rules for living this time of year too.
Happy new year!
About 3 or 4 months ago a woman in her late forties joined my class who had been diagnosed with high blood pressure. She wanted to know if yoga would help and was willing to give yoga a try. She came every week, almost without fail, and enjoyed the classes.
We took it gently at first, modifying postures where needed, ensuring that the practice was safe and giving her body time to get used to moving in new ways. After some practice, she took well to the ujjayi breathing, and even came to a weekend workshop to explore taking yoga further.
I had a wonderful email from her this week saying she has had her high blood pressure re-tested and it is back to normal and she credits the yoga practice for this.
However let's give the credit right back to her. She was motivated to do something positive to help herself with her health situation. She was ready to make changes to her lifestyle that were contributing factors to her high blood pressure (high stress and lack of exercise). She stuck with it, even though at first she saw no tangible improvement in her blood-pressure and asked how long it would take for the yoga to 'work'. She helped her health situation for herself and she now has her own reward.
All of us have this ability within us to help ourselves and I'm inspired by students who come and practice the yoga teachings in their own way for their own aims. It does take perseverance; it isn't overnight. Often when we arrive at a class we are looking to improve imbalances or issues that have crept up over years or decades, and these won't be changed in a few sessions. But hopefully by finding a yoga practice that you enjoy you will enable the improvements to come.
Another woman in her early thirties came to my class in December. She was a British Athlete, a snowboarder, who had suffered a serious concussion and was unable to continue her rigorous slope and gym training. With frequent, regular yoga practice, she was able to continue her physical training in a way that adapted itself to her injury. She found a sense of peace of mind and confidence. Then in February she went on to win Britain's first Olympic medal on snow.
Well done Jenny Jones!
Yoga is adaptable to any injury, illness or health situation. When skillfully applied, it can be a great support and help you pave your way to improvements. The tools are varied and some may be more appropriate than others - bodywork, breathwork, meditation. No matter what your situation there will be something you can do to get started. Please get in touch to find out more or read more about yoga therapy here.
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Mindfulness - to be mindful. To be aware of each moment and to act with intention.
Christmas - beyond the religious festival it is to fill stockings, make plans, see friends and family, plan menus, arrange travel, eat wonderful rich foods etc. It's busy, fun, tiring, stressful, overindulgent, exciting, a whirlwind ... a mix of many things.
For many people, trying to maintain a sense of mindfulness when life gets hectic is a challenge most of us struggle with. Those who go to a yoga class will already have a headstart in maintaining a mindful attitude. To practice yoga is to develop a mindful body and movement with mindful breath.
Maintaining a mindful approach helps you to enjoy the whirlwind. To experience joy and gratitude for the festivities all around us. It is all too easy miss if your too busy to notice.
To help you remain mindful try setting aside as little as 5 minutes each day to re-set your intentions. Sit quietly, perhaps alone, or over a quiet cup of tea. Do nothing else except gaze softly at a blank wall, table, or natural object and settle your gaze there gently, or close your eyes. Notice your breathing, and connect with yourself for a short while. Note your intentions for the day and resolve to pursue them. Try this for 5 minutes each day through the Christmas period.
Try not to get carried away in the potential whirlwind but to stay connected to what is important to you and to enjoy the moments. If you find yourself feeling too rushed or stressed, take a few deep breaths and ask yourself 'what would my 'mindful self' do?', and then act.
Remember to take time to enjoy your Christmas festivities. Keep up some yoga or other grounding practice if you can. And see you in class in the new year.
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Fascinating radio programme on Radio 4 where we explore findings that show we are made up of 10x more microbial cells than human cells. We are a community of billions of micro-orgamisms. In fact we are more a microbiome than human. The community is constantly exchanging between our environment and other people, in constant interchange. We're not as individual as we think we are, sharing much of our environment internally aswell. Which I find mind-boggling and food for thought. So who am 'I' again?
Listen to it by following this link:
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As we set our good intentions for the new year (including re-igniting your commitment to yoga classes!) it is sometimes helpful to get some inspiration...
The Dalai Lama shared some wonderful advice on how to live in the new millenium, and I love to read them at the start of each year.
Enjoy in a short video or read below!
The Dalai Lama's 18 rules for living
1. Take into account that great love and great achievements involve great risk.
2. When you lose, don't lose the lesson.
3. Follow the three Rs: 1. Respect for self 2. Respect for others 3. Responsibility for all your actions.
4. Remember that not getting what you want is sometimes a wonderful stroke of luck.
5. Learn the rules so you know how to break them properly.
6. Don't let a little dispute injure a great friendship.
7. When you realize you've made a mistake, take immediate steps to correct it.
8. Spend some time alone every day.
9. Open your arms to change, but don't let go of your values.
10. Remember that silence is sometimes the best answer.
11. Live a good, honourable life. Then when you get older and think back, you'll be able to enjoy it a second time.
12. A loving atmosphere in your home is the foundation for your life.
13. In disagreements with loved ones, deal only with the current situation. Don't bring up the past.
14. Share your knowledge. It's a way to achieve immortality.
15. Be gentle with the earth.
16. Once a year, go someplace you've never been before.
17. Remember that the best relationship is one in which your love for each other exceeds your need for each other.
18. Judge your success by what you had to give up in order to get it
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Jill Bolte Taylor is a Harvard Brain Scientist who had a life changing experience: a stroke in the left side of her brain. This offered her the extraordinary experience of analysing the progression of left and right brain function first hand as her left brain function subsided. She describes her intermittent experiences over four hours during the stroke, experiencing moments of pure stillness, fascinating insights and being an energy being connected to the universe. The chatter of the brain turns off as her left brain function is hampered, and she experiences the purity and wholeness of what we really are as her right brain comes to the fore. An interesting and inspiring experience which is worth seeing in her 20 minute TED talk.
Watch the video here >>
The tools and techniques of Yoga could be described as aiming to allow us to quieten our left brain, to bring it under our control by training and discipline, to allow us to experience and tap into the right side of our brain. Being in the present, letting go of the baggage that our years of living have left us with, and becoming fully aware of our sensory experiences, being a witness, completely at peace with ourselves and the world.
She says 'the more time we choose to run the deep inner peace circuitry that is the right brain, the more peace we will project into the world and the more peaceful the world will become.'
Yoga movement and body work, breathing, sensory experience, and meditation are all tools that help us to still the left side of the brain and run our deep inner peace circuitry and find our own freedom.
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